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Nothing can stop him now! - youngest round-world solo

by Nancy Knudsen on 15 Jul 2009
Zac looking like a winner - photo by Lisa Gizara, SW
There's nothing that can stop him now!! Barring almost impossible-to-imagine events, Californian 17-year-old Zac Sunderland is about to become the youngest sailor on earth to circumnavigate the world solo.

He will break the record held since November 1996 by Australian David Dicks who completed his eight month trip when he was 18 years and 41 days old.

Zac pulled out of San Diego yesterday after clearing customs, and is due in Marina del Rey, on the central Los Angeles coastline tomorrow Thursday(16th July), just 13 months and two days after he left on June 14, 2008.

With only about 100 miles to go from San Diego, Sunderland is making a big tack to Catalina Island and back in, to time his arrival at 10.00 local time.

Zac, laconic, practical and always understated, purchased his boat, a 36ft sloop called Intrepid, with his own saved money, and prepared it with the ever-supportive help of his Dad, who is a shipwright and boat builder.

He embarked without any major sponsorship, from Marina del Rey, unknown, unacknowledged, and with only the support of his immediate family and friends. His trip has taken much longer than that of David Dicks, who stopped only once to receive a bolt that he needed for a repair.

Zac's trip was more like a leisurely cruise, stopping in many exotic locations along the way. He first sailed across the Pacific

stopping in Honolulu to Port Moresby and then Darwin.

Transiting the Indian Ocean he had a pirate scare, and reached Capetown coincidentally in time to bump into two other circumnavigators, the inimitable Japanese eight-time solo circumnavigator Minoru Saito and British teen solo sailor Mike Perham, also trying for a solo circumnavigator record. (Mike started from the UK trying for a non-stop unassisted record on a 55ft racing boat, but that was dropped early when he was forced to stop in the Canary Islands for repairs.)

From Capetown Zac sailed north west across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and up the west coast of North America.

When he left home to sail the world, he was sixteen, and didn't even have a driver's licence. He says that the idea had been in his mind since he read 'The Dove' as a child. The book

chronicles a five-year circumnavigation by Robin Lee Graham, whose voyage ended in 1970, when he was 20.

Zac was already an experienced sailor though, having sailed with his family since he was five years old. He planned his trip minutely, but what he could not plan were the various dangers and difficulties that he would encounter on the way.

A pirate scare occurred when he was 150 miles beyond Indonesia, on a course from Australia to the Cocos Keeling Islands. The mysterious wooden vessel did not appear on his radar screen, but he detected it visually and judged it to be around 60 ft.

He tried unsuccessfully to raise its crew on the radio. Although a long way from the coast, it could have been a fishing boat, but the alarming thing was that when he changed

direction, the boat changed direction too.

Winds were light and he could not escape, so he dialled home. A sister answered. Laurence Sunderland grabbed the phone and gave his advice: 'Load your pistol and flare gun, then issue a radio security alert with your position. Fire a warning shot if necessary, but at the first sign of aggression, shoot to kill because they'll try to kill you.'

The craft crossed in Zac's wake with no sign of crew, and then changed course and headed away.

'For 30 minutes I was living on the edge out there, not knowing what to do,' he told reporters later.

This was not the worst experience for the long-haired adventurer

who rarely expresses emotion while telling such stories.

'The whole trip had its share of scary moments,' he admits when asked. 'Broken forestay . . . broken boom . . . broken tiller . . . the rogue wave off Grenada that broke over the back of the boat at 2 a.m. and took out all the electronics. . . . '

Laurence can vividly recall 'four specific times that we've been put to our knees in prayer.'

One involved his son's passage through the treacherous Torres Strait between Australia's Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea in early September. The passage boasts a vast maze of reefs and requires constant vigilance to negotiate.

But there was casual Zac, reeling in a fish, when the satellite

phone slid into the cabin sink and delivered a false signal relaying his position as 100 miles off-course, on a dry reef.

Laurence and his wife, Marianne, tried frantically for 20 hours to reach their son and verify his position. They had begun to request a search-and-rescue mission from Australia when, about midnight in California, a message relayed via high-frequency radio appeared on their computer screen:

'Hi mom, I'm OK.'

Worse was the day that, in gale force winds, the forestay rigging, which holds the forward sail and helps secure the mast, tore loose and the furler banged out of control, smashing parts of the bow.

The forestay also supports the mast, so Intrepid was at extreme risk. With the furler drum loose, Sunderland could only partially furl the forestay's genny, which whipped violently in the wind, tearing at lines. He worked feverishly through two days and nights atop a slippery deck and secured the situation as best he could.

Then he collapsed and awoke later to discover that the storm had cleared.

Laurence had flown to Mauritius to greet his son with spare parts for Intrepid.

When the boat hobbled into port, he recalls, 'it looked like a dog that had been in a fight and had come up second-best.'

Of Zac, his father says: 'He looked drawn and worn-out, relieved to see a familiar face.'

He has also had some near misses with ships which ran without lights and refused to answer his calls.

However, all these were isolated times in the scheme of the whole voyage. He says there were many many more exhilarating times at sea when he and Intrepid galloped swiftly like man and horse. He received a colorful native greeting at Majuro in the Marshall Islands, his second stop after Hawaii, and along the way he met fellow cruisers and remained in contact with them there and beyond. He was welcomed with tremendous hospitality in almost every port, testament to the tight-knit nature of the global sailing community.

Zac enjoyed the Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, and he loved his three-week stay in Cape Town, South Africa.

As more and more sailing fans around the world came to know of his journey,

his following grew as he put miles beneath his keel, but not all the followers were supporters. His family had plenty of criticism for letting hime embark on the journey at all.

His mother, Marianne Sutherland has always been as supportive as her husband. 'It's not negligence,' says Marianne, a mother of seven, who points to her eldest son's extensive sailing background and adventurous spirit. 'It's just that we're not accustomed to living inside the box. What's the harm in letting a kid pursue his dream?'

Zac had attended Grace Brethren High School in Thousand Oaks, before departing. The record he was trying to break was that of Australian David Dicks, who completed his circumnavigation when he was . Zac, who turned 17 on 29th November in the Indian Ocean was only able to celebrate alone with a microwaveable cake.

While Zac funded his own boat, the adventure has cost his parents much sacrifice in time and money. His father, Laurence has tried to

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